Howe: Iowa Football Starts Shift Strong, Long Road Ahead for Needed Change
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Uncomfortable conversation took place in the Iowa Football complex this week. It represented a necessary step in healing the Hawkeyes and righting the wrongs.
Turmoil has embroiled the program since last week, when former players spoke out about racism and mistreatment. It shifted to recovery mode Monday when athletes return to workouts.
Training scheduled for Monday and Tuesday was canceled in favor of much-needed, clearing-the-air discussion. Everyone who wanted to speak was afforded the opportunity. Emotions ran high as the players did most of the talking.
“It was raw. It was powerful and productive,” 21-year head coach Kirk Ferentz said Friday here at the outdoor practice field. “Everything was on the table and it got somewhat heated and somewhat emotional at times. That’s good.”
And a necessary sign for a program that for far too long suppressed voices, leading to scars. It welcomed inclusiveness after decades of players being excluded and marginalized.
That’s not to say all was awful with the Hawkeyes. They won a lot of games and shared plenty of wonderful memories. Lifelong friendships were fostered.
But avoidable hurt inflicted for no other reason than skin color severely impacted the experience. Some players, black and white, suffered from unfair treatment that should never have happened.
“The coaching style, by some, was at times demeaning, and created unnecessary frustration and anxiety. One byproduct of that is some of our black athletes feeling that they couldn’t be themselves in our culture, and to that end, we must be more inclusive and more aware,” Ferentz said.
Ivory Kelly-Martin, a running back from the Chicago area, has spent three years in the program. He confirmed allegations by former players that it felt like walking on egg shells in the facility.
“I think I can speak for a lot of the guys that there was an atmosphere where you did have to look out, kind of watch your back. You always had to be on your toes at times,” the junior said Friday.
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Many of the fingers for mistreatment and racism have been pointed at strength coach Chris Doyle, who was placed on leave pending an external investigation. He denied racist behavior in a statement released Sunday.
Ferentz let everyone know early in Friday’s press conference that he would not be addressing questions about Doyle. As the head coach said Sunday, he wanted the probe by an outside committee to be completed before commenting.
Raimond Braithwaite, who worked for 16 years under Doyle, is running strength and conditioning in his mentor’s absence.
“These last couple of days in the weight room and on the field, we can all tell that there’s a clear difference between how it is now and how it was then. We’re all excited about what’s to come. We’re all excited to really bond with each other,” Kelly-Martin said.
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Relationships were damaged by players being afraid to speak up when they saw other teammates being mistreated for fear of repercussions. It created animosity and stunted growth. Empowerment to call out inequities began this week and must continue.
“I would say we need to speak up more if we see something,” senior kicker Keith Duncan said. “I would never put all of the blame on Coach Ferentz. He is not able to see all of these things. It’s on us as leaders, as captains to speak up on what we see, what can improve.”
As part of a greater freedom of expression for players, Ferentz lifted a ban on them using Twitter. Sophomore safety Kaevon Merriweather jump started a show of team unity on the platform Monday, when he shared his feelings on a national hot-button topic – Kneeling for the national anthem.
Ferentz called the previous rule stupid because he was allowing them use of other social media in the past. The coach did it to protect his players from wading into a platform that can be a cesspool of argument. Friday, he rightfully shared that he should trust them.
“It feels good having another outlet that I can express myself,” Merriweather said.
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The three players here Friday looked like a giant weight had been lifted off their shoulders. That they felt it before was sad and can never happen again.
Parents are sending their children to Iowa and away from home for the first time, in many cases. Iowa has to treat them better.
When Ivory Kelly-Martin saw former players calling for change, he felt thankful. He knew it had gone on for too long.
“My heart was full of hope at that moment because without facing change, nothing can be changed,” he said.
Under the longest tenured coach in college football, Iowa has become a model of success through hard work on the field. It’s begun a task much more difficult than blocking and tackling.
As it is for this country, there’s a long road to recovery. The Hawkeyes appear to be on the right track.